It’s hard not to see all the things that are going wrong in the world. Many areas are suffering from the effects of climate change. The war in Ukraine heartbreakingly grinds on. Closer to home, fellow citizens can’t find common ground as polarization increases and opinions get entrenched. Then there’s inflation and all the fallout from COVID…
What can the liturgical year offer us during this challenging time as we begin our Lenten journey? Haven’t we heard it all before? Yes… and no. Although the Scripture readings and distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday are predictable, what we bring to this day isn’t. The past 12 months have shaped who we are, and we bring all our painful experiences – isolation, suffering, grief, worry and more – to this moment.
As we look back on the year that now lies behind us, we have an opportunity to juxtapose it with where our world is today. We may see in our own lives echoes of what’s causing harm in the big picture: things like selfishness, violence, greed, anger, manipulation, impatience. I like the way Rory Cooney puts it in the Lenten hymn “Change Our Hearts”*: “Change our hearts this time…” Because in Lents past, maybe our hearts didn’t change as much as we hoped or as much as they should. But this year we have another chance.
The three pillars of Lent – prayer, fasting and almsgiving – can help us along the way. For example, we can pray for an end to violence in the world, in our communities, in our own hearts. We can fast from harsh words, from anger, from selfish behaviour and instead spread love and understanding. We can donate money to causes that work to bring peace to war-torn areas, to difficult family dynamics, to troubled social situations. The phrase “Be the change you want to see in the world” is a pretty good guide: when we see something that needs fixing, even if we can’t fix the big problem, we can make a start at home, at work, at church, in our community and beyond. That means looking within to see what’s not working well in our own lives or what needs our time and care. It may reveal some of our faults and failings, which is a good thing, if not a comfortable thing.
Sometimes music can help us access this vulnerability and possibility more easily than spoken or written words do. An Ash Wednesday hymn that can get us into a prayerful space is “An Offering of Ashes,”* by Tom Conroy. It speaks of rising again from ashes and creating the world anew. Both images point us in the right direction on Ash Wednesday. May God truly change our hearts this time…
* “Change Our Hearts” and “An Offering of Ashes” are both published by Oregon Catholic Press.
Anne Louise Mahoney is Managing Editor of Novalis. She is the editor of Looking to the Laity: Reflections on Where the Church Can Go from Here and the author of I Hope, a book for young children.